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Should Vail’s wilderness trails adopt use restrictions?

Education effort 'isn't working' Vail Town Councilmember says

The trail to Booth Falls has seen even more use, and misuse this summer as more people look to get outdoors.
File photo
Reservations in action A reservation system for Hanging Lake this year limited the site to no more than 128 people per day. The 2019 limit was 615 visitors per day. Permits to use the trail had to be purchased ahead of time.

Kim Langmaid has seen enough. It’s time to restrict visitors on East Vail trails leading into wilderness areas, she said.

Langmaid, a Vail Town Councilmember, said education efforts over the past two summers simply haven’t worked. That means it’s time for more concrete measures.

“We have pristine wilderness right in our backyard,” Langmaid said. “It’s just getting far too much visitation.”

From a town perspective, the biggest problem is parking in areas near the Booth Falls trailhead. But, she added, overuse on trails leads to erosion, as well as trash, pet waste and other garbage strewn about.

Vail Town Councilmember Brian Stockmar, an East Vail resident, said he’s seen gradual degradation on trails over the years, particularly on the Booth Falls trail.

“Booth is one of the worst,” Stockmar said, adding that many of the fires in the area are due to human inattention.

Increasing use, and misuse

That use, and misuse, has increased dramatically this year, as people from around the state and elsewhere are flocking to the mountains for outdoor social distancing.

After studying the problem in East Vail, the council decided to take a couple of summers to work on educational solutions to the problems.

“There’s no indication it’s working” on the Booth Falls and Gore Valley trails, Langmaid said.

Discussions started a couple of years ago about restricting trail access, perhaps with a reservation system similar to the one that began in 2019 for Hanging Lake.

But that’s going to require working with the U.S. Forest Service, and that will take time, Langmaid said.

“It could be a couple of years to a severa-year process,” Langmaid said.

The Vail Valley isn’t alone in seeing increased public land use.

It’s everywhere

Consultant Steve Coffin said virtually every place within a six-hour drive of the Denver area is seeing increased pressure on public lands.

Coffin is one of the coordinators of a group called NoCo 2050 places. That group has brought together public land managers, local government representatives and others to look into possible strategies to address the growth in public land use.

Most of that pressure is coming from the Front Range. Coffin said that 94% of the state’s population growth in the past decade has been concentrated on the Front Range. That’s why the mountains on the east side of the Continental Divide have seen so much pressure on public lands.

The idea behind NoCo 2050 Places is, in part, to encourage greater cooperation between agencies and take a broader view of how to manage the pressure on the state’s special places.

Langmaid attended — virtually, of course — a meeting of civic leaders, an offshoot of the NoCo 2050 Places project.

Langmaid said the ideas discussed by that group include both a broad vision and talk about the future.

“What I told the group is that this is not in the future, it’s right now, and were behind the curve,” Langmaid said.

Part of the problem is that public land agency budgets continue to dwindle, especially as more of those agencies’ funds end up committed to fighting wildfires.

What that means is that towns depending on tourism will have to spend more of their money on public private partnerships with government agencies.

In addition to increased pressure on local government budgets, Langmaid said there are other potential problems.

“If you start restricting access, do you create inequities?” Langmaid asked. Those inequities could include blocking access to those who don’t have the access or skills to make on-line reservations. If fees are charged, is that a barrier to lower-income users?

“These are big questions,” Langmaid said.

No silver bullets

No one has yet come up with solid answers to these and other questions.

In addition, Langmaid said it’s time to rethink destination marketing.

“We need to be looking at destination management with as much fervor as destination marketing,” she said. Successful marketing doesn’t mean communities — or public lands — are ready for the impact visitors bring.

Vail has already funded cooperative projects with the Forest Service including the Front Country Ranger program. The town is also working with the Forest Service and Colorado Parks and Wildlife on a “landscape level” project to improve wildlife habitat and lower fire danger on more than 4,000 acres on the north side of Interstate 70 starting at the town shops and East Vail.

“We’re the ones creating the problem; we have a responsibility to (help address it),” Langmaid said.

While any system to restrict trails into public lands will take time, Stockmar said perhaps the town could take some action on its own.

“We do have authority over (trail) access points,” Stockmar said. “We have the very thin potential leverage that (users) are on town land.”

Whatever solutions come to pass, Langmaid said it’s important for the town and users to maintain “a very high quality experience with wilderness values” on those well-used trails.

Vail Daily Business Editor Scott Miller can be reached at smiller@vaildaily.com.


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